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Is Lateral Hiring a Diversity Blindspot for Big Law?

Patrick Smith LAW.COM

Law firm recruiter Merle Vaughn has made it her business to recruit minority candidates. But she says she's eager for the day when her niche won't be needed anymore.

Despite eagerly touting their efforts to enhance diversity, major law firms have remained stubbornly homogenous, especially at the top. As it stands, racial and ethnic minorities comprise 33% of law school graduating classes but only 9% of equity partnerships, according to the National Association for Law Placement and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.  

Most firms acknowledge the need to identify and recruit diverse associates and to support and promote them. But what about ensuring diversity in firms’ lateral partner pipeline?

Los Angles-based Merle Vaughn, senior lateral partner recruiter and law firm diversity practice leader at Major, Lindsey & Africa, knows these issues better than most.

A former associate at Cooley with a string of notable placements under her belt, Vaughn took a somewhat circuitous route to becoming one of the best-known recruiters of diverse lateral candidates in the U.S.

She left the law for a time to open a business with her husband before opting to try her hand at legal recruiting. And she quickly found herself carving out a very specific niche. 

“It happened very fast,” she said of turning her recruiting focus to diverse hires more than 15 years ago. “At the time, I was pretty much the only Am Law 100 recruiter that was black.”

She said things ramped up quickly once she decided to focus on diverse recruiting, and she received a lot of referrals from candidates who “felt they didn’t get treated fairly or were misunderstood.”

She said while the number of minority recruiters has increased, the number is still quite low for the amount of work available. 

“[People] shouldn’t make broad generalizations,” she said when asked whether she thought that fewer minority recruiters meant fewer opportunities for minority laterals. “But I don’t think not having more diverse recruiters is helping the industry.”

Vaughn made sure to state that just because a recruiter happens to be a minority, that doesn’t mean that they need to specialize in recruiting other minorities. But, she said there are some cultural differences and experiences that a minority recruiter could better relate to. 

“You can’t overestimate the value of experiences, and that is what diversity is all about,” she said. “They frame how we go about the world and help us understand not just how the world works for us, but for others.”

Firms often bring her in to consult on their diversity programs on top of working with her for diverse lateral hires. She said that in this process, the first question she asks is, “What are you willing to do differently to get a different result?” Vaughn said the answer to that question can usually tell her whether the firm is going to be successful in its diversity program or not. 

One thing she has noticed in these consultations, as well as in her lateral recruiting practice, is the different standards that minority attorneys are held to.

She used the example of a potential hire who happened to be a minority. The partnership of the firm liked his credentials but wasn’t sure if they would be able to provide an appropriate fit and that the minority hire, as opposed to a white one, might have a “target on their back.”

“They were less willing to take a risk with the minority candidate,” she said. 

But, she said she has seen clients get on board and drive firms to be more diligent about diverse hires. 

“Firms have come to me for advice because they have lost business,” she said. 

While progress overall is slow, Vaughn did say there were certain areas where, along with client demand, demographics are now helping shape demand for diverse hires. 

“Trial lawyers,” she said. “Almost every law firm I work with is looking for a diverse trial lawyer. I mean, look at who makes up the jury.”

When asked about the future of diverse recruiting, she said succinctly that “It would be wonderful to just have ‘recruiting,’ and not diversity recruiting.”

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